A University of Victoria lab is working on developing an affordable, accessible and effective test to detect arsenic in drinking water, with the help of a researcher in the U.S.
Arsenic can be found in groundwater in northern Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Argentina, India and Bangladesh, typically as a result of the mining of gold or uranium. Ingesting arsenic can cause a range of health concerns, from rashes to increasing the risk of several types of cancer.
Heather Buckley, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Victoria, leads a group of researchers trying to developing solutions to challenges around safe drinking water. The lab is getting help from Andrea Green, an undergraduate student in Atlanta, through an internship program called Mitacs Globalink that supports international research collaborations to help solve complex problems.
If it weren’t for pandemic travel restrictions, Green would travel to UVic for the 12-week internship to work directly alongside the team. Instead, she connects through video calls.
While several methods exist to test for the presence of arsenic in drinking water, there are barriers to using them. Green is reviewing existing testing methods to come up with a better solution.
The most effective types of tests, which can detect trace amounts of arsenic, involve specialized equipment and expertise to operate, while field kits that are small and can be used without training are too expensive for some people, can’t detect really low levels of arsenic and can deliver false positives and negatives.
“Andrea’s work has been really foundational to us in terms of understanding what currently exists and what the gaps are in terms of technology,” Buckley said.
The lab is working on creating a low-cost option that can be used as easily as someone would use a chlorine test strip for a backyard swimming pool. The researchers are developing a chemical system that has a strong colour response to the presence of arsenic, so when it comes into contact with water without arsenic it remains light, and when it does contact with arsenic it turns dark blue. The strength of the change is proportional to the amount of arsenic detected in the sample.
Because the human eye perceives colours subjectively, Buckley envisions pairing it with a technology that can identify a colour match, such as a cellphone.
“That’s something that a camera and image processing software can capture really, really easily, that as humans we really struggle with,” she said.